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ISR Issue 49, SeptemberOctober 2006
The destruction of Lebanon
"Birthpangs of a new Middle East"
SEEMINGLY OVERNIGHT, Israel has reduced the Gaza Strip and Lebanon to smoldering piles of rubble. By the first week of August 2006, Israel's campaigns had killed more than 1,000 people combined, displaced upwards of one million others, and dismembered if not outright destroyed the civilian infrastructure that sustains life in both localities, making a mockery of Israel's claims that the civilian casualties it inflicts are unintentional.
Notes Human Rights Watch's Peter Bouckaert, reporting from Tyre, Lebanon,
My notebook overflows with reports of civilian deaths. On July 15, Israeli fire killed 21 people fleeing from Marhawin, including 13 children; no weapons, no Hezbollah nearby. On July 16, an Israeli bomb killed 11 civilians in Aitaroun, including seven members of a Canadian-Lebanese family on vacation; again, no Hezbollah, no weapons. On July 19, at least 26 civilians were killed in Srifa when Israeli bombs flattened an entire neighborhood; no evidence of military targets. On July 23, at least seven civilians were killed when Israeli warplanes bombed dozens of cars trying to flee the south after receiving Israeli instructions to evacuate immediately; no indication of weapons convoys in the vicinity. The list goes on….That these quasi-genocidal policies are legitimized and encouraged by the U.S. political elite, beneath the rubric of Israel's “right to self-defense,” is not so much surprising as it is a testament to the consistency of imperial discourse in moments when it, or its allies engage in such strategic gambits. Given that every single military operation Israel has launched in its history has been justified using similar logic, the Bush administration, together with its Democratic Party backers, seemingly feel there is no reason why this time around the discourse should be any different. Moreover, when the apologists for these actions in the corporate media are also the same (with the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post all writing editorials in support of Israel's actions2), is it any wonder why many in the American audience feel the “Arab- Israeli conflict” is riddled with a blithe intractability and can't understand the monotony of its “cycle of violence”?
Not only has Israel failed to distinguish between military and civilian targets; its own officials suggest that they have decided any civilian still in the south is fair game. Last week, Justice Minister Haim Ramon reportedly said, “All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah.”1
If there is anything nuanced or original about the latest conflagration however, it is that in the midst of the volley of press conferences and emergency UN Security Council meetings, U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has been remarkably frank in her characterization of what the U.S. is truly seeking: “I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante.”3 She would later comment, “What we're seeing here, in a sense, is…the birth pangs of a new Middle East and whatever we do, we have to be certain that we're pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one.”4
Rice's words are not merely the drivel of dogmatic speechwriters putting the necessary linguistic dressings on war crimes, by all definitions of the term. Rather, they reflect the conviction that the U.S. ruling class sees Israel's campaigns as the next step for reinvigorating U.S. imperial hegemony throughout the Middle East, a plan that links the war in Iraq with efforts to extend U.S. hegemony over the entire region-by bringing the Palestinian resistance in the Occupied Territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon to heel, with Lebanon as the first stepping stone for moving against Syria and Iran. To understand the reasons why this became necessary now, and the new local and regional scenarios that are emerging, requires grasping the contours of the current political period. This is necessary not merely to stop the barbarity inflicted against the Lebanese and Palestinian people, but also to bring about the success of the resistance movements that are at the heart of what Israel and the U.S. are trying to crush.
Two fronts, one war
How then are we to understand what Israel is doing? The Gaza and Lebanese fronts of this war are linked and have many similarities, but at the same time are separate and must be dealt with as such to understand how both fronts lock together into one war.
The Gaza front
The Israeli assault on Gaza began quite literally a few hours after three separate Palestinian military factions launched a well-coordinated guerrilla attack on Israeli military positions located on Gaza's perimeter. The sophisticated attack resulted in the deaths of two Israeli soldiers, and the abduction of another. Israel's supposed “retaliation” has included the bombing of Gaza's main power station; the destruction of local bridges; the abduction of sixty-four elected members of local and national Palestinian governance (including eight cabinet members); the aerial bombardment of Gaza's Islamic University, the Palestinian Authority (PA) prime minister's office, the foreign minister's office, and dozens of other civil society organizations; and wave after wave of ground assaults into all sections of Gaza, resulting in killing at least 180 Palestinians in five weeks. These repeated incursions represent the first time Israel has conducted a major and sustained invasion of Gaza since it “unilaterally disengaged” from it in September 2005.5
It is this last point that provides clues for what is behind Israel's actions in Gaza today. Israel withdrew its settler and military presence from within the borders of the Gaza Strip so as to be able to erect a more efficient occupation regime over it. Instead of a situation where 7,000 heavily subsidized Israeli settlers were protected by thousands of Israeli troops, in political conditions that were increasingly indefensible locally or internationally, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon opted for a situation whereby Israel continued to control all of Gaza with only a few hundred troops stationed on Gaza's perimeter, under the guise that it was no longer responsible for the fate of Gaza's inhabitants. Israel of course maintained full control over Gaza with respects to everything from its air and sea space, to crossing points, financial dealings, population registries, and even its electricity, fuel, and water supplies.
The broad Israeli political current that Sharon led to disengage from Gaza, and which later became crystallized through his formation of the Kadima Party, was also motivated by the perceived “danger” of demographic forecasts between Jews and Palestinians within the areas bounded by the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Sharon understood that if Israel were to survive as a self-described “Jewish democratic state,” it needed to consolidate its control over its long-term interests in the 1967 Occupied Territories (the large West Bank settlement blocs where 80 percent of the settlers reside, Jerusalem, water resources, quarries, mountain tops, etc.), while ridding itself of the areas which would “weaken” it in the long term (areas of high Palestinian population density). The Gaza redeployment was meant in this regard to relieve Israel from the “burden of responsibility” over its 1.4 million residents. Similar plans were also envisioned for the West Bank. Though Sharon's sudden departure from the political stage prevented him from personally carrying them forward, Kadima was voted into power in March 2006 under the leadership of Ehud Olmert, primarily upon this political mandate.
However, no sooner had the philosophy of unilateral disengagement been sold by Israel to the international community as an end to the occupation of Gaza-as Israel demonstrating its willingness to “pay the price for peace”-than it began to come apart on the ground.6 The homemade rockets Palestinian resistance forces had been using to fire at Israeli settlers and military targets in Gaza were now being used to fire at Israeli settlements in the south of the country. This tactic was used by Palestinian resistance forces in Gaza in an attempt to strike a balance of deterrence against Israel's continued oppressive policies, particularly its extrajudicial assassination campaigns, which persisted with impunity after the pullout. In fact, from the time Israel withdrew up to the June 2006 abduction of the Israeli soldier, no less than 144 Palestinians, including twenty-nine children, were killed, in “liberated” Gaza.7
The disengagement also had the effect of strengthening the political tides within the Palestinian national movement, which argued that steadfastness and resistance were what brought it about, and what in the future would mark the path towards achieving Palestinian goals. “Four years of pain [because of the sacrifices of the Intifada] is better than 10 years in vain [of negotiations],” became Hamas's political slogan after the disengagement. Moreover, when Hamas finally came to power in the January 2006 elections on the backs of this surge, it promised to reform and realign the Palestinian national movement overall. This had become necessary within the context of the national movement's overall decrepitude caused by the damage it had sustained from Israel's systematic targeting of it, and its own mismanagement by the former Fatah-led regime. Newly elected Palestinian prime minister Ismael Abu Haniyeh argued this in one of his Friday mosque sermons:
Haven't there been negotiations for ten years? And what were their results? When [PA president] Abu Mazen raised the banner of compromise and negotiations-what was Israel's response? We must depart from this path. The Palestinian cause is kidnapped in its political, security, and financial dimensions. We want to return the Palestinian cause to its legitimate partners, so the people become the source of decision making.8On the ground, Hamas was making important steps to do just that. It recruited the vanguard sections of Fatah, embodied in the Popular Resistance Committees,9 into its program, and was using this alliance to consolidate its position on Gaza's streets.10 The Hamas political leadership also went to pains to achieve political agreements with Fatah over its overall national program, negotiating a common position based upon understandings known as the Prisoners' Document.11 The day Hamas and Fatah announced their unity behind this common platform, news emerged from Gaza of the guerrilla attack and abduction. The attack itself embodied the political and operational unity that Hamas and Fatah had already achieved in the field throughout the course of previous years of struggle: two of the three military wings that conducted the operation were in fact Fatah offshoots, while the third was the Hamas military wing, the Izz el Din al-Qassam Brigades.
It was within this context that Israel began formulating how to deal with the emerging trends within Palestinian society and their respective repercussions on Israel. Since the failed summit at Camp David in June 2000, Israel has made a strategic decision to do away with the Palestinian national leadership, given its ultimate refusal to play the role of Israel's subcontracted security arm-the role the Palestinian Authority was explicitly designed to play under the Oslo process.12 Though it took a full four years to weaken, isolate, and dismember the former Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, Israel did not expect its campaign against the new Palestinian leadership to last so long. Within weeks of coming to power, Israeli commentators were openly predicting when Israel would make its move: “The immediate question on the agenda of Bush and Olmert is whether and when to take action to topple the Hamas government. The reply of the [Israeli] defense establishment is 'yes' and 'not yet.'… The defense establishment prefers to give Hamas more time to decide whether to go the route of moderation, as the PLO did, or to stick to its guns.”13
Of course Israel and the United States did not wait long. Not only was the Hamas-led government far easier to financially, politically, and diplomatically isolate in the post-9/11 world, but Israel and the U.S. knew they could rely upon elements of the old, pro-Oslo Fatah elite to participate in its downfall. While Israel assassinated two of the three founders of the Popular Resistance Committees (in addition to scores of others), the U.S. and EU sought ways to prop up elements of the old PA elite. This included finding means through which it could provide select individuals from Fatah with financial assets (at a moment when the cash-strapped Hamas government could not find the funds to pay its 150,000 public service employees), while also providing new weaponry to Abu Mazen's presidential guard.14
All indicators in the run up to June 2006 indicated that the Palestinian movement was heading for an internal showdown to determine which of these political trends would be most ascendant.
Then came the Palestinian military operation in Gaza and the abduction of the Israeli soldier. Immediately, Israel used the pretext to knit together as many of its outstanding long- and short-term objectives as possible. Not only would Israel seek to destroy the Hamas government, but it would also force those who survived the Israeli raids to operate underground. This would then make it difficult if not impossible for the government to function. This related not merely to the government's obligations to raise money to pay government employees (who compose a full one-third of the Palestinian economy's jobs), but it also meant that the government could say goodbye to its aspirations to implement administrative, organizational, and political reforms.
The benefits of launching a frontal assault on Gaza also served the domestic political needs of the Olmert government, which came to power suffering from an inferiority complex, governing in the shadow of Sharon's towering legacy. Olmert, and his Defense Minister Amir Peretz, could argue that a bloody campaign in Gaza would promote “deterrence,” and this in turn could create “new momentum” for a withdrawal from the West Bank. This had become crucial for the Israeli government to achieve, given that Israeli enthusiasm for disengaging from the West Bank had clearly been slipping, even before the latest campaigns in Gaza and Lebanon. A poll conducted by the Israeli daily paper Haaretz at the beginning of June 2006 showed that only 37 percent of Israelis supported the convergence plan, with a solid 56 percent opposing it.15
Thus was born Israel's most recent campaign of belligerence against Gaza, and which later would set the stage for the dramatic developments that broke out on Israel's northern border on July 12. Were it not for the conflagration in the north, it is likely that Israel's campaign against Gaza would have continued indefinitely and with yet more unprecedented barbarity. Israel's ritual pummeling of Gaza not only aims to destroy the emergent reforming trends of the Palestinian movement, but also, like a public execution, to crush the aspirations this movement embodies for millions of Arabs and Muslims throughout the world. The ascendance of Hamas to power in January 2006 was being closely monitored by these latter forces, not merely because of its positive contributions to the Palestinian national movement, but also because it provided an opportunity to prove that democratic, nationalist, and Islamic interests are not incompatible within a counter-hegemonic political project-issues relevant to social movements in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and a host of other pro-U.S. Arab states.
The Lebanese front
Hezbollah's raid on Israel's northern border, the abduction of two more Israeli soldiers, and the immediate launching of a full-scale Israeli war against Lebanon, has set into motion entirely new dynamics. As with Gaza, Israel believed it had secured a pretext to accomplish a series of longstanding goals, which integrated well with U.S. aspirations for consolidating its regional hegemonic interests.
Understanding these goals, however, also requires gaining a sense of how Israel has historically perceived and acted towards the countries it borders, and particularly towards Lebanon. In this regard, Israel has consciously worked to subvert popular identification with an Arab nationalist agenda, seeking to bring the Arab world to submit to its presence in the region, both as a country founded upon the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, as well as a Western sponsored colonial-settler state, which does its imperial backer's regional bidding. Israel's successes in achieving this however (what the U.S. and EU terms “hard won peace”) with Egypt in 1979, and Jordan in 1994, has not been matched with respect to its northern neighbors, Syria and Lebanon. This, despite the fact that the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was specifically designed to bring about a pro-Israel right-wing Christian Lebanese government to power. Though no less than 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed in this bloody campaign, instigating years of a costly civil war, a submissive pro-U.S./pro-Israel Lebanon never emerged. Moreover, Israel was later forced to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon in June 2000, due to the disciplined resistance Hezbollah waged against it over the years.
Nonetheless, Israel and the U.S. never gave up on their ambition to secure Lebanon within their orbit, and furthermore saw the opportunity to push forward with this agenda in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In February 2004, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon and the deployment of Lebanese troops on Lebanese soil-a reference primarily to the south of the country from which Hezbollah conducted its resistance campaign against Israel. This resolution was brought about by joint French-U.S. maneuverings to undermine Syrian influence in Lebanon, and to specifically neutralize Hezbollah, which consciously promoted itself as a model of resistance to Palestinian national movement actors. Only recently, Hezbollah's charismatic leader Hassan Nasrallah declared how “Hezbollah, with its modest capabilities, achieved what several Arab governments, with their organized state armies, did not-as they contented themselves with mere silence about the slaughter of our Palestinian brethren.”16
It is worth noting here that Hezbollah maintained its military wings in Lebanon because the “state of war” that Lebanon and Israel have officially been engaged in since 1948, did not end when Israel unilaterally withdrew from the “security zone” it held there for eighteen years. Moreover, there were a whole series of outstanding issues which had yet to be resolved between Israel and Lebanon, including the question of the former's continued occupation of the Sheb'a farms region; the issue of Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails; the 300,000-plus land mines Israel left behind in the south; and the repeated Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty, including assassinating Lebanese and Palestinian activists, and incessant Israeli air force flyovers, and sonic booms over Lebanon.
Nonetheless, with the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq el Hariri in February 2005, and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April that same year, it looked like the U.S.-Israel alliance was making genuine headway. The elections that took place in Lebanon in the months following the Syrian withdrawal, however, revealed the limitations of the conception that any one particular current in Lebanese politics could dominate and impose its agenda on all others. Hezbollah and the Shiite political bloc represented a full 27 percent of the Lebanese parliament, and there were other political currents in Lebanon which had alliances with Syria, that were also not interested in Lebanon becoming a U.S. vassal.
Moreover, though Israel and the U.S. have traditionally dealt with Hezbollah as though it were an Islamic fundamentalist proxy arm of Syria and Iran in Lebanon, this is not how the movement is viewed from within Lebanon, even by Lebanese opposed to its agenda. Though Hezbollah does have relations with Iran and Syria, neither is capable of entirely controlling or dictating terms to the movement. Moreover, this colonial logic (promoted because this is how the U.S. deals with its own allies in foreign countries) totally ignores the fact that Hezbollah is a genuine Lebanese national movement that emerged from within the disenfranchised Shiite population that had been written out of Lebanon's complex confessionalist political system for years. In fact, even before the latest confrontation with Israel, a full 74 percent of Lebanon's Christians considered Hezbollah a legitimate resistance organization.17 UC-Irvine anthropologist Lara Deeb, who has written extensively on the Shiites of Lebanon, describes the nature of Hezbollah's political outlook as follows:
There is no doubt that Hezbollah is a nationalist party. Its view of nationalism differs from that of many Lebanese, especially from the Phoenician-origins nationalism espoused by the Maronite Christian right, and from the neo-liberal, US-backed nationalism of [Rafik el] Hariri's party. Hezbollah offers a nationalism that views Lebanon as an Arab state that cannot distance itself from causes like the Palestine question. Its political ideology maintains an Islamic outlook. The 1985 Open Letter [which announced Hezbollah's official formation] notes the party's desire to establish an Islamic state, but only through the will of the people. “We don't want Islam to reign in Lebanon by force,” the letter reads. The party's decision to participate in elections in 1992 underscored its commitment to working through the existing structure of the Lebanese state, and also shifted the party's focus from a pan-Islamic resistance to Israel toward internal Lebanese politics. Furthermore, since 1992, Hezbollah leaders have frequently acknowledged the contingencies of Lebanon's multi-confessional society and the importance of sectarian coexistence and pluralism within the country. It should also be noted that many of Hezbollah's constituents do not want to live in an Islamic state; rather, they want the party to represent their interests within a pluralist Lebanon.18Because of Hezbollah's nationalist political line and its responsible resistance-oriented platform,19 the movement was able to sufficiently weather the anti-Syria tide that had mounted in the wake of Hariri's assassination.20 Moreover, in February 2006, during the period of national dialogue that followed the Lebanese elections, the Lebanese government, under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (considered to be within the pro-U.S. Hariri camp), officially acknowledged that Hezbollah was not a Lebanese militia but a legal resistance movement. This political accomplishment effectively neutralized the most threatening elements of UN Resolution 1559, and with it the U.S.-French-Israeli attempts to use this as a basis to bring Lebanon within its fold. From this moment onwards, the United States and Israel understood that a frontal confrontation with Hezbollah, and with Lebanon was imminent and necessary.
Hezbollah needed to be destroyed, to stem the tide of “radical” moral and political victories it was encouraging throughout the Arab world. Moreover, Israel understood that this was also in the interests of pro-U.S. Arab regimes (primarily Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt), who saw Hezbollah as representative of increased Iranian influence in the region. Clipping the wings of Hezbollah was considered even more important after the U.S. occupation of Iraq greatly increased Iranian influence in that country. (Saudi foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal addressed the U.S. Foreign Relations Council in September 2005, openly stating that the U.S. handed Iraq over to Iran-Saudi Arabia's main regional competitor-on a silver platter.21)
In this regard, an undisclosed “senior Israeli official” quoted in the Washington Post, was remarkably frank about the nature of Israel's current campaign: “Hezbollah's cross-border raid that captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others has provided a 'unique moment' with a 'convergence of interests' among Israel, some Arab regimes and even those in Lebanon who want to rein in the country's last private army.” The article notes that, “the broader goal is to strangle the axis of Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Iran, which the Bush administration believes is pooling resources to change the strategic playing field in the Middle East, U.S. officials say.”22
This is exactly what Israel set out to do, with former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres explicitly relaying this in comments addressed to the Lebanese people once Israel's bloody campaign began:
We are distressed to see how time and again your green country turns into burned black patches and heaps of ruins. We know well that war sows destruction in your beautiful country and our hearts break but we have no choice: It's us or Hezbollah. You also have no choice: It's you or Hezbollah. From our point of view, this is a war for life and for peace.23Top Israeli military commentator Ze'ev Schiff was more succinct when it came to describing in real terms what is actually at stake in Israel's Lebanon campaign:
Hezbollah and what this terrorist organization symbolizes must be destroyed at any price. This is the only option that Israel has. We cannot afford a situation of strategic parity between Israel and Hezbollah. If Hezbollah does not experience defeat in this war, this will spell the end of Israeli deterrence against its enemies.Schiff continues:
If Israel's deterrence is shaken as a result of failure in battle, the hard-won peace with Jordan and Egypt will also be undermined. Israel's deterrence is what lies behind the willingness of moderate Arabs to make peace with it. Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction, will be strengthened and it is doubtful whether any Palestinians will be willing to reach agreements with Israel. Therein lies the link between the fight with Hezbollah and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.24Future prospects
If destroying Hezbollah, and getting the Lebanese government or an international force to disarm it, and patrol Israel's northern border, are the standards by which Israel is measuring its level of success in this campaign, then Israel is heading for a colossal defeat. Despite the enormous human and material costs this war has inflicted on the people of Lebanon, the first few weeks of Israel's campaign are demonstrating that Israel has neither the military or political ability to defeat Hezbollah under the present circumstances.
When the war began, Israel's chief of staff, Major General Dan Halutz, insisted that Hezbollah's missile capabilities would be wiped out in ten days. Now comparisons are being made in the press between Israel's war in Lebanon and the overconfidence of the U.S. when it stormed into Iraq. Weeks into the Israeli invasion, Hezbollah has continued to fire rockets, and Israel's ground troops have encountered stiff resistance from dug-in Hezbollah fighters that have bogged them down only a few kilometers from the border. The Washington Post described it as, “A fierce fight for every yard.”25
“So far in the conflict,” the Post continues, “Israel and the United States have scaled back their ambitions-from disarming or even destroying Hezbollah in the early days to the more modest aim now of creating a frontier that would push the militia back from the border.” However, even if the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is able to take and hold territory in southern Lebanon, it will mean the rekindling of a protracted guerrilla war in the southern zone, that is, it will mean renewing the same scenario that prompted Israel's 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon in the first place.
Whatever the final outcome, the Post article continues, “The growing signs that Hezbollah will emerge from the fighting intact, though battered, have already inspired its portrayal of the war as a victory, by everyone from its grass-roots activists to the senior leadership.” This assessment of Hezbollah's efforts is not restricted to its own activists.
The Lebanese people have overwhelmingly united behind Hezbollah in unprecedented numbers-87 percent support, according to a July 26 poll, including 80 percent among Christian and Druze Lebanese.26 Moreover, Hezbollah has already won in many respects the political battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab masses, who are enraged and emboldened by Israel's actions. Meanwhile the pro-U.S. Arab governments are aghast at what this might mean for their hold on power.
This was certainly not the result Israel was looking for. In its systematic bombing of Lebanon's infrastructure and its bombardment of civilians, Israel was looking to anger the Lebanese population and turn them, especially the Sunnis and Christians, against Hezbollah and compel the Lebanese government to intervene against it. Instead, the prestige of Hezbollah among all sections of Lebanese society has skyrocketed, and the Lebanese government is saying that it refuses to negotiate anything until Israel withdraws.
Israel's poor results are not lost on their top political commentators who warn of the impending dangers of the current period, and shamelessly expose the subcontracted role Israel is playing for U.S. interests in the region: “U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the figure leading the strategy of changing the situation in Lebanon, not Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Defense Minister Amir Peretz…. As such, she needs military cards, and unfortunately Israel has not succeeded to date in providing her with any.”27 Amir Oren could not have been more fitting in resurrecting the old leftist expression (derided for years by Israel's liberal backers) which describes Israel as the U.S. “watchdog” in the region: “U.S. President George Bush is disappointed. This was not how he had pictured the powerful, resourceful and crafty IDF, with all its American equipment. The administration in Washington had hoped that the IDF would operate in Lebanon swiftly and decisively. It called for a bulldog and a poodle turned up.”28
Though Israel's civilian deaths are only a tenth of the Lebanese losses in this war, Israel's losses too are nothing to scoff at. In terms of the numbers of its soldiers and citizens killed, the numbers of continuous days that Israel's northern communities have been living in bunkers (representing at least one-third of its population), and the number of Israeli towns and cities that Hezbollah rockets have been able to hit, Israel's losses are profound. The arrogance and hubris Israel had demonstrated in recent years-from its claims that it had defeated the Palestinian Intifada, to claims that the Israeli economy was again robust, with foreign tourists and international investors arriving in record numbers-all that has proven hollow. Moreover, Israel's broader claim to be providing a safe haven for the Jews of the world has also come crashing down with terrifying irony.
Though it may still be too early to forecast what all this means for dynamics within the local, regional, and international setting, certain conclusions can be drawn from the battlefield today.
First, it is important to acknowledge the accomplishments of Hezbollah as a movement. The movement's ability to craft a disciplined, responsible, and competent political project that is loyal to the rights and interests of its local constituency, and its national brethren, and which is simultaneously proving to be a veritable opponent to the Israeli juggernaut, is something that no other Arab political project has been able to accomplish in its history. Though there is no need to exaggerate or romanticize this, it is worth pointing out because Hezbollah's accomplishments are not its alone, but in part the result of the movement's ability to glean and synthesize the lessons of the enormous sacrifices of the Arab movements who have struggled against Israel in the past. To fail to acknowledge this is an affront not only to Hezbollah's achievements, but also to the struggle of the Arab masses who paid for these sacrifices, too, often with their own blood.
Second, a wounded Israel, with a sense of hurt pride, is also a more dangerous Israel. As of the writing of these lines, it is unclear whether the draft cease-fire proposed by the U.S. and France to the UN Security Council on August 6 will be implemented, or for that matter, if such a cease-fire would really last that long if implemented anyway. There are simply too many factors that make it impossible to predict what will happen. For one thing, in calling for “the immediate cessation by Hezbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations,” the cease-fire does not even require Israel to leave Lebanon.29 Israel is hailing it, naturally, but the Lebanese government says it won't support any cease-fire that does not include an Israeli withdrawal.
Israeli leaders understand well the stakes in this war, and seem prepared, despite its difficulties, to press forward. “We cannot stand with a stopwatch in our hands,” commented Israeli justice minister Haim Ramon, expressing both Israel's intentions and its frustration. “The war will continue until we achieve the aims we have posited for ourselves. If the war stops now, we will lose the campaign. It is inconceivable that Israel, with all its might, cannot beat several thousand Hezbollah fighters.”30
The current alignment of forces leaves open the possibility that Israel may receive the green light from the U.S. to expand its war yet further into Syria or even beyond. If the morass of Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq, are proving too sticky for the U.S. and Israel, it may find cause to “up the ante” yet further-raising the stakes to levels that are truly horrific to consider.
Here, the calculations of U.S. imperialism-and quite crucially the balance of resisting forces opposing it, both in the Middle East and within the U.S.-are what will determine how these scenarios unfold. For this reason it is crucial that political actors in the U.S. grasp the gravity of the situation on the ground, and conduct the necessary groundwork to ensure that healthy, participatory movements are built to prevent these scenarios arising. This includes but is not limited to educating people about Israel, U.S. imperialism, and the nature of Zionism, as well as working consistently to break down the debilitating anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism that persists in significant sections of the U.S. antiwar movement.
Finally, if indeed Condoleezza Rice's words are true-that what we are witnessing emerging from beneath the scorched earth and smoldering rubble of Gaza and Lebanon today, is the birth of a new Middle East-let it be the birth of a Middle East that belongs to the proud and defiant working classes and oppressed peoples of the Middle East, and their allies in struggle around the world, and not a Middle East which belongs to U.S. oil corporations, and their political handmaidens in Washington.
Toufic Haddad, a frequent contributor to the ISR, is author, along with Tikva Honig-Parnass, of a forthcoming book from Haymarket Books on Israel and the Palestinian movement since Oslo.
1 Peter Bouckaert, “For Israel, innocent civilians are fair game,” Counterpunch web site, August 5/6, 2006.
2 For a summary of how these newspapers misrepresented and encouraged the recent Israeli assaults see, “Israeli contribution to conflict is forgotten by leading papers,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), July 28, 2006, available at http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2928.
3 David S. Cloud and Helene Cooper, “U.S. rushes order for precision bombs to Israel,” New York Times, July 22, 2006.
4 “Special briefing on travel to the Middle East and Europe,” Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Department of State, July 21, 2006, available at http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2006/69331.htm.
5 On two other known occasions, Israel has entered the Gaza Strip but then retreated. In the first case, Israeli undercover forces occupied a building in the north of the Gaza Strip and used it as a position to kill Palestinians allegedly firing homemade rockets into Israel. The second case occurred a day before the Palestinian military operation, (June 24) where Israel abducted two brothers from the Muamar family, near Khan Younis, and whom Israel accused of being Hamas members.
6 The Israeli Foreign Ministry published a document at the time of its disengagement from Gaza, entitled “Paying the price for peace,” http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/2000_2009/2005/Paying%20the%20Price%20for%20Peace%20-%20July%202005.
7 “Israeli contribution to conflict is forgotten by leading papers,” FAIR media advisory. The report cites the statistics coming from the Israeli Human Rights Organization, Btselem.
8 Recordings of Haniyeh's speeches are frequently uploaded on Hamas's political Web site: http://www.palestine-info.info/arabic/index.shtml. This particular speech was posted for his June 16 speech (or khutba).
9 The Popular Resistance Committees (PRCs) were primarily a Fatah-composed faction that formed at the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada in Gaza. These forces comprised the radical anti-Oslo base within Fatah which broke from their role, often within PA security services, and who aligned themselves with militants from other factions, beneath one large umbrella organization.
10 The PRCs were designated a special security force that Hamas recruited to maintain order on Gaza's streets, after it came to power. The pre-existing PA security forces were too disparate, and functionally often acted as the personal militias of given Fatah strongmen. This meant that when the Hamas government came to power, it had no means of enforcing its rule, or for that matter to address the rising internal security issues Gaza was confronting as a consequence of the extreme poverty there, and breakdown of a functional law system after five years of Intifada.
11 The Prisoners' Document was a manifesto of sorts, drafted by senior Palestinian leaders in jail, representing all major Palestinian factions, which was designed to provide a common political and resistance platform for the national movement. The agreement reached between Fatah and Hamas was not the original document but a variant that was revised through negotiations between both parties.
12 One of the best comprehensive analyses of this can be found in Edward Said, Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).
13 Amir Oren, “From convergence to submergence,” Haaretz, May 19, 2006.
14 Israel supposedly provided the PA presidential guard (Force 17) with 3,000 M-16 assault rifles via Jordan. See Ali Waked, “Hamas: Zionists want PA civil war,” Yediot Aharonot Web site, June 17, 2006, available at http://www.ynetnews.com/Ext/Comp/
15 “Poll: Most Israelis oppose PM Olmert's convergence plan,” Haaretz, June 9, 2006. After the Gaza and Lebanon campaigns were in full swing, the outcry against the disengagement conception became much more forceful. Israeli commentator and Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit described it as follows: “The third intifada has already arrived. This time, it is the intifada of the Qassam, the GRAD, the Katyusha and the abductions-a Hamas-Hezbollah intifada, backed by Iran. This intifada, which has struck at the western Negev and is now striking at the north, is doing to unilateralism what the intifada of the stones did to the occupation and what the intifada of the terror attacks did to peace: It is destroying it. It is making it clear that disengagement is not an option, that there is no withdrawal that will lead to stability, that there is no 'we are here and they are there.' There is no wall high enough to keep the fanatics away from our homes and the conflict away from our children; there is no way to isolate the Israeli mall from the surrounding Middle East.”
16 David Hirst, “The 'Arab System' is dying in Lebanon,” Guardian [UK], July 28, 2006.
17 “Witnessing a democratic decline,” Mohammed Zahid, Global Comment, July 6, 2005, available at http://www.globalcomment.com/current_affairs/article_108.asp.
18 Lara Deeb, “Hizballa-A primer,” MERIP Report Online, July 31, 2006 available at http://www.merip.org/mero/mero073106.html.
19 Hezbollah maintains a strict policy of using its weapons for resistance against Israel, and never against its domestic rivals.
20 According to Lara Deeb, “After the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, and the subsequent Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, Hizballah's position was often inaccurately described as 'pro-Syrian.' In fact, the party's rhetoric was carefully chosen not to oppose Syrian withdrawal, but to recast it as a withdrawal that would not sever all ties with Lebanon, and that would take place under an umbrella of “gratitude.””
21 Firas Al-Atraqchi, “Iran is Bush's bogeyman,” Al-Ahram Weekly, April 27-May 3, 2006, Issue No. 792, available at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2006/792/in2.htm.
22 Robin Wright, “Strikes are called part of broad strategy,” Washington Post, July 16, 2006.
23 Gideon Alon, “Peres to Lebanese: It's us or Hezbollah,” Haaretz, July 27, 2006.
24 Ze'ev Schiff, “For Israel, the conflict in Lebanon is a must win situation,” Haaretz, July 27, 2006.
25 Anthony Shadid, “In south Lebanon, a fierce fight for every yard,” Washington Post, August 5, 2006.
26 “Israeli strikes may boost Hezbollah base,” Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, July 28, 2006.
28 Amir Oren, “IDF in Lebanon: Bulldog or poodle?” Haaretz, August 1, 2006. The senior Israeli commentator Ari Shavit, described the Israeli conduct in the war as a “systemic failure.” “Systemic failure,” Haaretz, August 4, 2006: “Now we are in the midst of the storm. The second Lebanon war sometimes looks like a repeat of the past, but in truth it is the flash of the future. An Iranian Cuba was established on our northern border. If the Iranian Cuba is not disarmed, it will threaten us continuously and intolerably. However, our present effort to disarm the Iranian Cuba looks more and more like the Bay of Pigs fiasco.”
29 “Draft of U.N. Security Council resolution on hostilities in Lebanon and Israel,” August 5, 2006, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2006/08/05/AR2006080500440.html.
30 Gideon Alon, “'If the war stops now, we will lose,” Haaretz, July 31, 2006.